Wed 6 Dec 2006
One of the persistent problems in advertising is how to get your ads to people who are interested in your products (how to persuade them to buy once they’ve seen your advertisement is another problem altogether!) If you sell something that men are interested in, remote controlled airplanes for example, you might run a TV spot on the History channel, who claims to have a 70% male viewership. The trend in marketing and advertising is rapidly transitioning from widely aimed ‘œshotgun’? approaches, to very narrow and targeted campaigns. With increasing access to data mines of customer demographic information, comes a clear reward– a higher return on advertising investments.
One company who seems to have obtained this holy grail of customer segmentation and associated marketing is Google. Google, with their suite of products covering an ever widening gamut, has infiltrated nearly every Internet user’s life. With that ubiquity however, comes important questions about customer data privacy. How Google answers those interrogatives might well decide the fate of their company, or conversely, the fate of consumer privacy.
Since their inception over eight years ago, Google has maintained a great public image; they have amassed millions of supporters worldwide, all the while drawing surprisingly few detractors. It’s not without cause; Google’s apps are cleverly and intuitively designed, they’re fast, and easy to use. And for the most part, they are offered at no cost to the end user. Google is killing competitors faster than the Once-ler could chop down Truffula trees (when Google’s not acquiring those competitors first.) To be sure, it’s hard to compete with free. It’s even more difficult to compete with free and really good.
All these giveaways are not indicative of financially ineptness. To the contrary, Google is amazingly profitable. Google makes money in a variety of ways, primary among them through advertising. They sell ads (Adwords) which are displayed in a growing number of locations, including to the top and the side of your search results, in your Gmail email account and on their affiliate websites (Adsense).
In order to present a better value for their advertisers, Google attempts to closely match customers with ads. Acquiring an accurate understanding of who the customer is and what they are doing, helps in this effort.
To that end, Google products glean valuable information about you as you use their products. Through google.com and personalized google.com, they have access to your Google search history. With the Google Toolbar, Google desktop and Google analytics, they have access to your web browsing history. All your private blog posts through Google’s Blogger service are available to Google. All your Gtalk instant message conversations are stored on Google’s servers. Google freely admits to searching through your email messages in Gmail in order to present you with context-relevant ads. The contents of your computer’s hard drive and all shared network drives are scanned once you install Google desktop. With Orkut, their social networking site, they know who your friends are. With Froogle and Google checkout, Google knows what you’re buying online. As a Microsoft Office killer, Google Docs & Spreadsheets will now helpfully keep track of each spreadsheet or memo or letter you write. Still further, there is a rumored Google OS in the works which would at last give Google complete vision into what you do and who you are.
Whether Google is currently doing anything unethical with this growing body of data is arguable. That they are gathering it and that they *could* act immorally is unequivocal.
Some shrug off the privacy concerns and counter that only criminals have activities to hide. I would propose that it’s not just illegal but legal indiscretions too which are laid bare. As well, with your complete search history sitting in a Google database, information concerning any medical or family problems you might have is readily searchable. Furthermore, trade secrets could be uncovered, embarrassments made public and so forth.
In summary, my concerns are not to be misconstrued as predictions from a crazed apocalyptic doomsayer. I believe them to be possible and probable misuses of power. The problem is that Google just has too many popular services and many of those services collect personal information. With rapid expansion comes a potential departure from their famous, informal motto: “Don’t be evil.” And, if not evil already, they have amazing potential to become so. Google is an indomitable force, but a force that needs to be internally and externally regulated. For example, Google has colluded (willingly and unwillingly) with the government in the past by providing search data and Google might well share more personal data with other entities in the future.
Sooner or later, I believe Google is obligated to address issues of collection, access and control of the mountains of collected private data. Failure to do so could result in a consumer backlash, or sadly, perhaps a shift in the level of expected privacy.